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by Serge Thion

[An open letter to reply to an article published by Mr Leopold Labedz in the British journal Encounter.]

As a "sturdy dissident intellectual" long accointed with Chomsky's political writings, as a scholar involved since ten years in research on Cambodia, as co-author, along with Ben Kiernan (probably unable to reply quickly to L. Labedz because he is busy doing research in Phnom Penh) of a forthcoming book on Cambodian Communism, as an involded participant in a general discussion in France and abroad on what exactly we mean by historical truth in contemporary politics, as my name has been mentionned by Leopold Labedz in your dournal, I feel somewhat qualified to address some comments to his "Chomsky Revisited." (Encounter, July 1980).

It would be fair for Mr. Labedz to disagree with Chomsky on political grounds and support his views by arguments pertaining to the core of the disagreement. I should not dispute that. Instead, with a fascinating bad faith, notwithstanding the devastating reply he already attracted to his February attack, he conveys this idea that Chomsky is attempting to deny that massacres occurred in Cambodia, thus showing his true nature of supporter of tyranny. There is something really odd in this new image of a writer previously known for his libertarian critique of the US policy, turning suddenly into an adept of the worst authoritarianism. Mr Labedz is just the last one to join the choir of those who sing on the same false tune. This common error stems from an interesting fact, easy to gather with a cursory glance : CHOMSKY DOES NOT WRITE ON CAMBODIA. He writes on America, or more broadly on the Western intelligentzia and the way it describes the actual sequence of events ln Cambodia. He never indulges, as I do, in analyzing them. By using internal evidence, he demonstrates, in my view quite convincingly, that the Western press is guiity of gross manipulations and distortions of its own basic information, that its message is modelled inside a painless ideological framework. It is expected that the press will reject this criticism and deny any guilt. For that reason, Chomsky has been widely and wildly attacked, and Mr. Labedz is rushing with the last straw.

It would be too long and fastidlous to list all of Mr. Labedz ultraselective quotations and their use to escape the main avenues of Chomsky's argument. I have already done that with another "strange revisitor", Parisian style, Claude Roy (1). I shall take one example only of Mr. Labedz' "outlandish" falsehoods: he writes of Chomsky "dismissing such first-hand studies as the book by Father Francols Ponchaud". Chomsky in his review of the book (The Nation, 250677) does not dismiss it at all but points to some of its weaknesses and recommend its reading. It seems to me a banal reaction to a book and, as a matter of fact, I had the same. I wrote that F. Ponchaud and F. Debré "do not understand much of politics, and particularly of the Indochinese revolutionaries' policy. Condemning a policy should not lead to spare the effort to explain lt" (Libération, 070377). Mr. Labedz is so uneasy at the idea of criticizing the good father Ponchaud that he mistakes it for a dismissal; he even believes it is a "first-hand study", which the book could of course not be, due to circumstances.

Chomsky repeadly said massacres did occur in Cambodia "though their scope and character were subject to debate". I quote from the very p. 279 of The Political Economy of Human Rights, vol.II, also quoted by Mr. Labedz. I then suppose he has read it. He perhaps estimates neither the scope nor the character of those massacres are open to debate, but he fails to say so.

Mr. Labedz speaks on several occasions of the "truth" on Cambodia. That titillates me for professional reasons. Let's consider the "evidence" provided by Chris Mullin's report of his trip to Cambodia (Tribune, 110480) :

"I drove one day to Kroa, a village 18 kilometres along the road to Battambang. The village I chose at random had a population of around 2,000 before the coming of the Khmer rouge. Today there are just 853, mostly women".

A typical report, I agree. I first dismiss the fact that my prewar maps of Cambodia do not carry any village by that name in that area, which is situated, I take it from the mileage, around Oudong, a former royal capital. Mr. Mullin may have caught the name wrong, or the settlement may be new. Many villages, if not most, have been displaced and renamed since the early 70s. When Mr. Mullin says "before the coming of the Khmer rouge", he seems to mean the advent of the Pol Pot regime in Aprii i975. But in fact, almost all villages in this area were under Khmer rouge control since 1970. I happen to have walked through many of them in 1972, as a press correspondant, invited by the guerilla organization (see my report in Le Monde, 26 to 28 April 1972).

I vividly remember those villages as already partly destroyed by air attacks. The population was either disseminated in the ricefields or withdrawn. Most of the young men had gone to war and the proportion of women was high. But my visit took place before the 1973 saturation strategic bombings which brought havoc there. Now, since we do not know from Mullin's account when exactly these 2,000 people lived there (and we have to trust Mullin's source, obviously local Communist authorities), let's suppose they were present in 1975. The turmoil of the war has probably brought there a number of people, displaced from other, less secure, zones.

The way the text is written strongly suggests these 1,147 missing people are dead, at Pol Pot's hands. We have all reasons to suppose that a large number died. But others joined the retreating Khmer rouge army, some fled to Thailand; some moved to Phnom Penh or their native viiiage. Who can tell the exact figures? Mr. Mullin may be unaware that this precise area hosted the headquarters of the Phnom Penh Special Zone, which underwent a politico-military crisis in 1976-77, when the local Khmer rouge administration was crushed by the central authorities, because of political opposition and a probable attempt to stage a military uprising. How bloody was the process? Mr. Hullin unfortunately did not ask. But hunger, exhaustion through forced labour and related sicknesses are the most common death factors in present-day Cambodia. They have struck very severely mainly in 1975 (Pol Pot's massive deportations) and 1979 (Vietnamese invasion and economic disruption). Now, is Mr. Mullin, or by chance Mr. Labedz, in a position to discriminate the responsabilities of the disaster?

I raise all these questions just to show how difficult it is to only assess the facts. This kind of reporting is almost totally useless because, being unable to incorporate the historical and political context, it cannot formulate the relevant question to be asked today in a Khmer village. If Mr. Labedz really feels satisfied with this kind of "evidence", he lives in a Disneyworld.

To help him out, I recommend a close scrutiny of a recently published CIA study, Kampuchea : A Demographic Catastrophe (GC 80-10019U) which, although disputable on many points, will somewhat sober his own estimates. Does all this "fall fully into the terrible category of genocide"? The mention here of a "category" points to the recent origin of the word (but not the fact), i.e. political rhetorics. If this word means anything, it is the complete destruction of a people. This is not the case of the Cambodians. If "genocide" is just another word for "massacre", why then use it, if not for polemical purposes?

My friend Ben Kiernan is also under attack by Mr. Labedz who find him guilty of having suddenly "become poacher-turned-gamekeeper in the field of genocide". I would not speak for him but I wish to refer to his own explanation of how further research and interviews led him from a positive to a negative evaluation of the Pol Pot regime. This is printed in the Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars (11, 4, 1979, pp. 19-25) for all to know.I take upon me to single out this paragraph, as it seems particularly relevant here:

"The many proven falsehoods spread in the Western Press led to the preoccupation with the correction of specific lies or distortions (fake atrocity photographs, fake interviews, etc.). While such corrections is important to anyone sorting through the evidence, it does not by itself establish the truth about the actual situation in Kampuchea. As George Orwell pointed out in reference to atrocity stories about the Spanish Civil War, those whose interests are against social change will always spread disintormation about revolutions; but these stories are irrelevant to the truth, neither its identity nor its opposite. It is up to those interested in the truth to establish it positively."

The inescapable conclusion is touched by Mr Labedz when he refers to "the nature of the beast", "the sobering experiences of the 70s", along with the "selective moratity" which condemns one side only.

Concerning Cambodia, the one important fact is that Communism was extremely weak in the country and could only win with the help of American might destroying and leveling every alternative political solution. The backbone of Cambodian social fabric was broken. The Indochina 30-years experience should lead to reflect on the fact that so many people there accepted though reluctantly the Communist "beast", even with some kind of relief, because they had so much suffered under another one, the Westen beast. I witnessed that feeling on the spot, in April 1975.

It is quite easy to blind ourselves on the brutal nature of our regimes, to deal in selective morality by ignoring the worldwide consequences of our policies, to exaggerate or distort the bad news we get from the other side, to rewrite history or refuse to inquire into falsified views of our own past (see John Bennett's letter). Westerners may feel their societies are after all the best in the world, but they still have a long way to go before they convince 4/5 of mankind that they are good for them too, in spite of our wars, our threats, our looting of natural resources, our neo-colonlal armed interventions. Is not Iran proving that point beyond dispute, with no classical "beast" to excuse our selfish blindness? Some people try to open our eyes, some others want to keep them shut.

August 15, 1980

Serge Thion


(1) Le Documensonge de la semaine, La Vieille Taupe. I describe the genesis of Chomsky' emergence as the "black sheep" on the Parisian intellectual scene in the September (1980) issue of Esprit.

This text, extracted from the archives, was circulated as a samizdat in 1980. It does not seem to have been published by Encounter.

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